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The Piper Generation

A new group has made bagpipes cool with kids.


Yes, the bagpipes. That much-maligned instrument that seems to appear only at funerals is now becoming quite the instrument of interest for teenagers who have been joining the St. Andrew’s Legion Pipe and Drums. The two-year-old band started out as a haven of old-time pipers, but recently many kids have been joining and learning the bags.

In addition to Daulton, there are nine other youngsters who range in age from 8 to 18. Some are pipers-in-training (not quite ready to march in parade routes), drummers or flag-bearers. “We have a great time with the kids,” says Geoff Strom, a member and instructor who only started playing the pipes himself a little more than a year ago. “They pick it up quickly and are anxious to get out on the street with us and march,” he says. The core group of accomplished pipers passes on its knowledge to the beginning students under the direction of senior instructor Ken Jones. Jones has more than 60 years of piping experience, beginning with his service in the Canadian Black Watch.

But not all new students are youngsters; several of the moms and dads providing chauffeur service enjoyed the camaraderie of the group and decided to join in the fun. Now, the group ranges in age from 8 to 73.

One of the performers is drummer Tammie Willis, 35. She is deaf, the result of having her head slammed into a pool table during a brutal attack in November 1994. Willis didn’t let that stop her. She became a music major at Mary Washington College and this year received her master’s degree in music in composition from Virginia Commonwealth University. Now she is working on a doctorate, studying music pedagogy in higher education.

Recently, Willis composed a fugue to be played on bagpipes, and members of the group performed the piece for her master’s recital.

“I play snare drum with the band, but my primary focus in my studies has been mallets [marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, chimes, bells] and timpani,” she says. “I also play the violin, viola and a bit of piano, cello and bass. I’m also learning to play the bagpipes, although I haven’t gotten past the chanter yet.”

For a group just two years old, the St. Andrews Legion Pipe and Drums already has had several high-profile performances this year. The group appeared with Irish Tenor John McDermott at the Carpenter Center and performed at the 50th anniversary ceremony marking the end of the Korean War at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery. They also entertained Sen. George Allen at Scottsville’s Fourth of July celebration.

But before the beginners can get on the street, they have to prove they’re capable on a chanter. The chanter is a flutelike instrument that allows a newcomer to practice the fingering without having to blow up a full-sized instrument. Filling a regulation bagpipe would tax the average full-grown man, and would present a real challenge for a young person.

Once they master the chanter and all of the trills, brills and grace notes that go with it, they graduate to playing a full-sized set of pipes. This is not an inexpensive proposition. A good set of pipes is considered cheap at $500. Add to that the uniform that pipers wear when performing (kilts alone can cost upward of $475), and becoming a piper requires a large investment.

“We feel that the band needs to step in and help any one of our pipers who have the interest but not the finances,” says pipe major Tim Batten. “We became a not-for-profit organization so that we could accept donations for that purpose. A large portion of any fees we collect from performing go to purchasing material for kilts. The future of piping lies with our young performers, and the only string we put on what we do is that they must pass along what they’ve learned to someone else when they get the chance.”

In the meantime Daulton isn’t worried about the future. “I really enjoy playing the pipes,” he says. “Believe me, it’s not something that everybody in school is into, but it’s something I really like to do.” S

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